Emily Wilding Davison was one of the most important figures in the English women’s suffrage movement in the early years of the 20th century. She fearlessly fought for women’s rights against unjust oppression, was detained and tortured on several occasions for her political activism, and ultimately lost her life trying to promote her cause. She’s largely to thank for the improved status of women’s rights in Great Britain and around the world as she refused to accept a political system that treated women as second-class citizens.
While Emily Davison is decidedly a brave and inspirational figure, the circumstances surrounding her death have been largely controversial and have caused many to question whether Davison took her acts of political defiance too far. On June 4, 1913, Davison ran out onto the track at the Epsom Derby horse racing track and was trampled by Anmer, a horse owned by King George V. The event, which was captured by three separate news cameras, resulted in the unfortunate death of Davison, causing many to wonder whether this was an accident or a politically motivated suicide.
While Davison’s motivations for running out onto the track that day remained mostly unknown for more than a century after the incident, high-tech analysis of the video footage carried out in 2013 revealed some interesting truths about Emily Davison’s death. Let’s take a look at the incredible life of Emily Wilding Davison and the events that led to her untimely death.
The Life of Emily Davison
Emily Wilding Davison was born in Blackheath in southeast London on October 11, 1872. Her mother, Margaret, and father, Charles, had four children together; however, Emily’s younger sister died of diptheria at the young age of six years old. Her father Charles also had nine children from a previous marriage.
Emily was schooled at home until the age of 11, and she later attended Royal Holloway College until her father died and her family could no longer afford the tuition. She later saved up enough money from working to attend St. Hugh’s College, Oxford, a constituent college of the University of Oxford. Davison never graduated from the university, however, because degrees from the University of Oxford were closed to women. She eventually received a degree from the University of London in 1902.
In November of 1906, Davison joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), officially marking the beginning of her career as an activist. The WSPU was known for its aggressive and confrontational approach to activism, its willingness to do whatever was necessary to forward its political goals. Sylvia Pankhurst, a fellow member of the WSPU, described her as one of the most “daring and reckless” members of the group. Davison lived and breathed the cause, stating in the WSPU’s newspaper, “Through my humble work in this noblest of all causes I have come into a fullness of job and an interest in living which I never before experienced.”
Indeed, Davison never backed down and was clearly willing to dedicate her life to the advancement of women’s rights. She was arrested on nine separate occasions, went on hunger strike seven times, and was subjected to barbaric force-feeding while imprisoned 49 times. On one such occasion, hoping to put a stop to the force-feeding, Davison jumped from a balcony in a prison and cracked two vertebrae and severely damaged her skull, an injury that would cause her discomfort for the rest of her life.
Despite the inhumane torture that Davison underwent, her fearlessness and motivation never wavered. Even after sustaining these life-changing injuries, she continued to perform acts of political activism. And, ultimately, it was one of these fearless acts of rebellion that would lead to her unfortunate death.
The Death of Emily Davison
On June 4, 1913, Davison traveled by train to Epsom, Surrey to attend the Epsom Derby. She made her way to the rail by the home stretch of the race track. As Anmer, the horse owned by King George V, was about to pass her, she ducked under the rail, ran out onto the course, and reached up to grab Anmer’s reins.
Davison was then dragged under the horse, which would have been traveling at around 35 miles per hour, causing the horse to fall over and partially roll over the jockey. Davison was knocked unconscious by the collision and was rushed to Epsom Cottage Hospital. While in the hospital, she received a great deal of hate mail that she would never have the chance to read. Davison died from a fracture to the base of her skull four days after the incident on June 8.
While some have claimed that the incident was a reckless attempt by Davison to kill herself and draw attention to the women’s suffrage movement, certain facts have since come to light that suggest otherwise.
The Truth Behind Emily Davison’s Death
There have been many theories posited by people who witnessed Davison’s death either in person or on the film captured by the three cameras recording the race. Some claim that Davison was simply trying to cross the track and did not realize that there were still horses running the race. Others believe that she was trying to pull down Anmer as an act of defiance against King George V. Some even believe that Davison meant to get herself killed.
In truth, Davison had already purchased a return train ticket home from Epsom for after the race and she had apparently made plans with her sister in the near future, so the idea that she was intentionally committing suicide doesn’t really hold up.
Additionally, Davison was known to have acquired two flags bearing the representative colors of the suffrage movement (purple, white, and green) on the day of the race, and those two flags were found on her person after the incident. Due to these facts, it’s believed that Davison had meant to fasten these two flags to Anmer’s reins before the horse crossed the finish line.
In 2013, British television network Channel 4 conducted an in-depth analysis of the original nitrate film reels that recorded the incident and concluded that Davison was, in fact, attempting to fasten a flag to Anmer’s reins when she was trampled. One of these was gathered from the race track and was put up for auction, and is now hanging in the House of Parliament as a reminder of Davison’s supreme sacrifice.
What We Can Learn From Emily Davison
The fact that Emily Davison died fighting for the rights of women in her country and all around the world shows the extreme degree of desperation that women in Great Britain felt for the right to vote in that time period. After being denied this human right for so long, being treated as second-class citizens, and being tortured for their efforts to reform a broken system, these brave women were willing to go to whatever lengths necessary to ensure change.
Emily Davison and all of the other suffragettes from around the world serve as inspirational examples that compel us not to accept injustice. They’re testaments to the strongest part of the human spirit, the part that’s willing to risk suffering and even death in pursuit of an ideal. As the struggle for gender equality pushes on, we can all look to figures like Emily Davison as shining examples of why inequality should never be tolerated and how the strongest among us will never tolerate it.